Monday, December 09, 2013

Scary Pet Zone

Pets had a dismally poor life expectancy once they crossed the threshold into the house on the park-like three-quarter acre lot that adjoined the wilds of Imhoff Creek. One might wonder why we needed pets at all, given the number of “freedom pets” that lived around us. There were cardinals, robins, thrushes, sparrows, squirrels, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, frogs, box turtles, “horny toads,” snakes, and even the occasional rumor of an alligator snapping turtle or coyote.
No. I wanted a pet I could cage and control, who would love me and I would love it, unconditionally and forever (or at least until it met its inevitably premature death). I had the requisite gerbils and hamsters, all with names, which I tried to expunge from my memory as soon as I could after yet another met a tragic fate. Gerbils had a way of plunging to their deaths after I thought they’d enjoy scampering on the top of the piano, and another gerbil lost his battle with the vacuum sweeper as I tried shortcuts in cleaning the litter from his cage.

Fish fared no better. Neons, goldfish, etc. usually died within the first week or so from some shock either brought in from the pet shop or inflicted upon them as I attempted to decorate their tanks.

Perhaps the saddest were the Easter chicks, gaily dyed and jammed together in little crates at the TG&Y store on Main Street. They were cute, and I bought pink and green ones. No one spoke of avian flu, but I can’t even begin to imagine how these conditions could be anything but ideal breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, and the cute little chickies were perfect vectors of pestilence.

Now for the big question: Why were people buying the sad little things in the first place? We weren’t exactly an agrarian community: in Norman, Oklahoma, the main employers were the state’s largest research university and the state’s largest mental institution. Well. Perhaps I answered my own question. Our house was so close to the university we could hear the marching band practice and also the cheers of the crowd in Owens Stadium on game days. We were far, far from Central State Psychiatric Hospital, which was on the east side of town. That was the side of town where many of the chimps lived who were being raised by professors to learn sign language, or to consider themselves human beings and part of a human family (University of Oklahoma psychology professor Maurice Temerlain’s tragic experiment with Lucy was well documented on radio and in a book)...

I never wanted to have a chimp. Gerbils were fine until I became consumed by a sense of the tragic and decided I did not really like to have “pets.”  It was just too painful to see their innocent little faces as they looked out of their cages, their sad, meaningless little lives punctuated only by the raw fear (and bruising) of a ten-year-old girl’s ungentle man-handling as she dressed her gerbil in a Troll Doll dress, or taught the neighbor’s cat to drink whiskey from the tiny little airplane-issue bottles my dad would bring back with him from trips.